Transgression, ‘so pure and so complicated’ is a contentious issue, with many critics to-date strongly questioning the effect of the oversaturation of violence and misdemeanour in contemporary subjective, cultural and political life, and the extent to which transgression is now exhausted.[i] The critical engagement with transgression has thrived in past few decades with numerous critical studies exploring the continued relevance and vitality of transgression as an ethical and aesthetic concern, and the subversive role and representation of the female in Gothic and Horror film and literature. For some, transgression is an antagonistic and cynical response to contemporary discontent, corresponding to a fatalistic inability to engage with contemporary culture/society except in terms of nihilistic or discordant inertia or refusal. Others have argued that transgression is an aesthetic mode of subversion, potently questioning of artistic, political and moral boundaries. In this way, transgression not only articulates limits but also goes excessively beyond them, forcing the transgressor to reassess their moral/ethical coordinates.
Transgressive fictions and film are characterised by their antagonistic approach to and flagrant abandon of moral decorum, normative or hegemonic politics and taboo. They are often recognisable for their excessive depictions of, or engagement with, violence, sex, death and deviance. This edition of Dark Arts seeks to encourage a greater debate concerning transgression in discussions of Gothic and Horror literature and film, particularly in those centred around the figure of the transgressive and/or monstrous female and the literary and cinematic representation of her challenging and threatening or deviant limit-crossing activities. In so doing, this edition of Dark Arts attempts to stimulate a discussion on the notion of transgression and the female body in contemporary Gothic, through a series of papers focused on Witches (Anastasia Olenina), Vampiric and Zombie Strippers (Atalie Gerhard), and the Female Necrophile (Izzi Smith). Through the examination of the positive and negative, radical and subversive intent of their subject texts/films which, the three papers here presented, in some way or another, explore the crossing of cultural and political limits and a refusal of objective or acceptable rationality or structure.
At the heart of these papers lies the conceit that if transgression stages the crossing and annihilation of limits then the Gothic, which undermines unstable distinctions between reality and unreality, as well as laws/prohibitions and limits, is a productive frame against which to read and critique transgression. The Gothic is a useful critical frame in which to understand transgression, its form and aesthetic, metaphorical and practical value, within literatures as a diverse and excessive mode that ‘continues to shadow the progress of modernity with counternarratives displaying the underside of enlightenment and humanist values’.[ii] Indeed, the concept of a border or limit to be crossed proves central to the construct and function of the monstrous and abject being in Gothic and Horror. ‘Although the specific nature of the border changes from film to film’, Creed argues, ‘the function of the monstrous remains the same – to bring about an encounter […] that threatens [a dominant structure or order’s] stability’.[iii]
In much the same way, Gothic is described by Wolfreys and others, as a mode or genre that ‘endlessly transgresses itself, erasing, crossing and rewriting the very boundaries’ by which it is understood.[iv] Gothic is a mode centred on movement, on interruption, on uncanny disturbances and of the transgression of continuity.[v] To transgress, therefore ‘is to appeal to a Gothic sensibility […] and so reveal perhaps the signs of a Gothic phenomenology, disturbing to, and disruptive [to] […] any realist mode of representation’.[vi] Such gothic literatures, film and TV force us into confrontation with traumatic movements or transgressions across contested and unstable distinctions between reality and unreality, between the Heimlich and the unheimlich, between the borders of the desired and the feared and thus represent a threat to rational domestic identity.
Furthermore, as critics of contemporary Gothic question the literary and cultural fascination with terror, horror, technology and monstrous, and the extent to which they are increasingly co-opted as commodities and the corresponding decline of their effectiveness in an age of cultural postmodernity, rethinking transgression, its forms and its validity is an even more central critical concern.[vii] This is particularly evident in criticism that reinstates the body – particularly the female body, as shown in the papers in this collection – as an affective site to be challenged, wherein gender and sexual politics, aesthetics and moral presuppositions are transgressed. In so doing, representations of the female body in contemporary gothic demarcate a radical affinity between to horror and corporeality as a counter-narrative to the acceptable.[viii]
The Gothic female has been subject of much critical attention over the years, particularly in the wake of the influential theorisations of Angela Carter, Barbara Creed and Carol J. Clover, to name just a few. Angela Carter’s works, for example, brought into sharp critical focus the inconsistencies and tyrannies of modern culture through disturbing, experimental narrative forays into transgression, sadism, masochism, eroticism and, in some instances, necrophilia, implied bestiality and even fetishist scopophilia. Her works pursue a revolution against constraint, be it moral, ethical or societal, unleashing what has been described as a ‘veritable pageant of chaos, irrationality, absurd pleasure and spasmodic desire’, and building on Sadean and Bataillean literary explorations of sovereign power and transgressive eroticism.[ix] Indeed, one of her most famous and transgressive claims was her philosophical and literary recuperation of Sadean into the service of feminism, in The Sadeian Woman (1979). With ‘more to do with treason than reason’, the literary explorations of transgressive femininity in novels like The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) and Heroes and Villains (1969) serve as highly influential ‘allegorical correlatives for the societal evils of tyranny, intolerance, persecution and corruption’.[x] As a result Carter’s novels and writings have become influential in the theorisation of female identity in the wake of and in opposition to oppressive power structures and discourse. Moreover, Carter’s literature turns to horror and the body as a discursive site against which to explore and respond to the cultural, societal and indeed philosophical concerns of the modern period.
In her seminal work on horror film and gender, Men Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992), Clover identified and challenges the pre-eminent masochistic viewing position that is cultivated in modern horror cinema. Clover’s theorisation presented a challenge to a patriarchal model of viewership that instead suggests we identify with the tortured and tormented female characters, that argues the female can be more than simply a victim in horror film. Not dissimilar to Clover’s ground-breaking work, Creed’s The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (1993) develops the notion of the monstrous-feminine as a counter to the problematic representation of the female and femininity in horror cinema. As Aldana Reyes stipulates in Horror Film and Affect: Towards a Corporeal Model of Viewership (2016), studies such Creed’s and Clover’s ‘crucially, point towards the ways in which representation of the transgressed onscreen body continue to generate affect by (ab)using [the body’s] vulnerability’.[xi]
What is evident in the likes of Creed, particularly, is the insistence on the transgressive potential of the specifically female-monstrous who retools the ‘construction of femininity as a form of threat’ and subverts the narrative that holds women, in Gothic and Horror, are either victim or monster.[xii] This contention is further engaged with in the papers that make up this edition as the authors each seek to articulate literary and cinematic representations of a powerful and threatening form of femininity that opposes and destructs problematic and gendered hierarchies and gendered social or political convention. Whether the literary or filmic manifestations of deep cultural subjective anxieties or as the ‘paradoxical personification of otherness’, monsters/monstrous characters such as those presented in the critical works which make up this edition of Dark Arts Journal, are transgressive figures who, having crossed a limit and ‘gotten inside’, challenge or subvert complacencies and the accepted order and rationality.[xiii] Monsters, therefore, within literature particularly perform a useful regulative function, ‘distinguishing norms and values from deviant and immoral figures and practices’ by combining transgressive, oppositional features and affective responses.[xiv] In its existence, monstrosity undermines any preconceptions about the stability and continuity of the acceptable and the rational and signifies the violent and the often-horrific contestation between limits and excess constitutive of subjective and corporeal experience.
In reference to representation of the transgressing monster of horror and gothic fiction and cinema, Fred Botting argues that in ‘speaking for themselves, telling of their pain and suffering, their status as victims preserves both the system that oppresses them and [offers] a critical fantasy of radical liberation’.[xv] Throughout the papers in this journal, the authors each at an underlying level re-engage with some form of transgression or another – such as violence, necrophilia, matricide, infanticide – as they track how the monstrous female provokes a movement against and annihilation of structural, moral and existential discourses and limits that are prevalent in modern and contemporary western societies. Each paper presents a reading of a particular transgressive and monstrous female iteration of a recognisable gothic figure, such as the vampire, the witch, the zombie and the necrophile and examines, as Botting stipulates, their metaphorical role as both victim and rebel. What is challenged throughout these papers is the detestable Gothic and cultural narrative that perceives women as ‘objects to be looked at, to be displayed, to be collected, exchanged and possessed symbolically and physically […] in sexual and fatal consumption’.[xvi]
This issue begins with Anatasia Olenena’s piece, ‘Brutality as New Femininity: Or, Monstrous Women of The Witch: A New England Folktale’ which explores themes of patriarchy and monstrousness in Robert Eggers’s acclaimed film (2015). Olenana argues that the transgressive actions of the female protagonists serve as a provocation to patriarchal conventions in the film and underline for the capability of female brutality, in the contemporary era, to function as a means of re-establishing both agency, and identify on her own terms. In her own words, Olenena argues that when societal norms and rules become unbearable to them, the female is forced into an identity-defining and destructive conflict with this oppressive power or society as she transgresses the limits that seek to keep her subjugated.
The second piece here presented is titled ‘The Monstrous Return of the Commodified Female: How Zombie Strippers (2008) and From Dusk Till Dawn (2014) Transgress Foundational US-American Cultural Values’, and is written by Atalie Gerhard. In this essay, Gerhard explores the similarities and differences between the monstrous figures of the female zombie and vampiric Culebra and how they transgress US-American cultural mythologies that are steeped in a patriarchal and discursive battle against the figure of the foreign and feminine other. In so doing, Gerhard argues that by transforming into monsters, the eroticized monstrous females actually challenge the patriarchal foundations of their culture and subvert their objectification through their violent and consumptive actions.
The third and final paper of this edition is written by Izzi Smith and is titled ‘Decease and Desist: Sexual Transgression and the Female Necrophile in Contemporary Horror Cinema’. In this paper, Smith looks in closer detail at the differing filmic representation of the female as victim and necrophiliac in films such as Deadgirl (2008), Kissed (1996) and particularly, The Neon Demon (2016). In so doing, Smith argues that by subverting the normative subject/object representation of necrophilia in film, the female necrophile underscores the monstrosity and subversive potential of feminine desire as she transgresses preconceived notions of female identity, agency and sexuality. Together, these three papers demonstrate and add to the much needed and pertinent contemporary critical debates that concern both the continued relevance of transgression and transgressive representations of the monstrous and rebellious female in Gothic and Horror literature and film.
Finally, I would like to give special thanks to our editorial team and our peer reviewers whose expertise and time volunteered have contributed immeasurably to the production of this journal. I would also like to pay special thanks to our contributors, to everyone who submitted abstracts and, to you, our reader, whose continued support allows the Dark Arts Journal to continue to grow and thrive.
[i] Michel Foucault, ‘A Preface to Transgression’, in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. and trans. Donald F. Bouchard (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977) 29 – 52 (p. 35).
[ii] Fred Botting, Gothic (London and New York: Routledge, 2014 ), pp. 1–2.
[iii] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine, pp. 10–11.
[iv] Julian Wolfreys, Transgression: Identity, Space, Time (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p. 97.
[v] Julian Wolfreys, ‘Preface: “I could a tale unfold’ or, the Promise of Gothic’ in Ruth Robbins and Julian Wolfreys (eds.) Victorian Gothic: Literary and Cultural Manifestations in the Nineteenth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000), p. xv.
[vi] Wolfreys, Transgression, p. 98.
[vii] Botting, Limits of Horror: Technology, Bodies, Gothic (Manchester University Press, 2008): Maria Beville. Gothic-Postmodernism: Voicing the Terrors of Postmodernity (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2009).
[viii] Judith Halberstam. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995); Xavier Aldana Reyes. Body Gothic: Corporeal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2014).
[ix] Dani Cavallaro, The World of Angela Carter: A Critical Investigation (London: McFarland & Company, 2011), p. 12.
[x] The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter: Fiction, Femininity, Feminism, ed. by Joseph Bristow and Trev Lynn Broughton (London: Longman, 1997) p. 17; Cavallaro, Angela Carter, p. 15.
[xi] Xavier Aldana Reyes, Horror Film and Affect: Towards a corporeal Model of Viewership (London: Routledge, 2016), p. 30.
[xii] Aldana Reyes, Horror Film and Affect, p. 33.
[xiii] Stephen T. Asma, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of our Worst Fears (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Timothy K. Beal, Religion and its Monsters (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 4.
[xiv] Botting, Gothic, p. 8; p. 10.
[xv] Botting, Limits of Horror, p. 13.
[xvi] Botting, Limits of Horror, pp. 15 – 16.